Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Investigating knowledge and use of technical vocabulary in Traditional Chinese Medicine

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posted on 2021-12-06, 23:28 authored by Cailing Lu

This research investigates the nature of vocabulary, especially technical vocabulary, in the specialized discipline of Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which is an important area of higher education. It consists of three linked studies in correspondence to three research aims using a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods. Study 1 addressed the questions of what kinds of words constitute TCM lexis given its origin, and what is the vocabulary load of English-medium texts in this discipline. To answer these questions, a series of lexical analyses was conducted on three corpora: theory-based and practice-based textbook corpora and a journal article corpus, which reflect the main areas of reading for TCM students. The results showed that while high, mid and low-frequency vocabulary make up a fairly large proportion of these texts, other lexical items such as abbreviations, loan words, medical words, proper nouns, and compounds also feature in them, but in differing proportions depending on the text types. Further, this study found that a large vocabulary of 13,000 word families plus four supplementary lists and two TCM-specific lists is needed. This is the point which most TCM learners can read TCM textbooks and journal articles without vocabulary being a handicap.  Study 2 looked more closely at the technical vocabulary in TCM. The nature of technical vocabulary was explored and TCM technical word lists of both single and multiword units were developed for learners and teachers in this discipline. A total of 2,778 word types were selected for the TCM technical word list based on the criteria of relative keyness in the TCM Corpora compared to a general written English corpus, meaningfulness, and frequency. The list provided 36.65% coverage of the corpora from which it was developed. In addition, a TCM technical lexical bundle list with 898 bundles was developed to supplement the technical word list. The findings suggested that lexical bundles play an essential role in creating meaning and structure of TCM discourse. Thus, they should be regarded as a basic linguistic construct since some technical vocabulary needs to be seen in bundles rather than in single words.  The last study bridged the gap between corpus-based word lists and the actual ESP vocabulary learning context by way of investigating learners’ understanding of the technical words from the technical word list generated from the second study. Results suggested that learners faced different challenges in technical vocabulary learning depending on their linguistic backgrounds. Specifically, Chinese learners had great difficulty with technical words from the lower-frequency bands of BNC/COCA word lists, while Western learners encountered challenges with loan words borrowed from Chinese. As a result, a certain divergence between the Western and Chinese TCM learners’ understanding of technical words was manifested. These findings indicate that a pedagogically useful word list should be adaptable to learners from different linguistic backgrounds.  Drawing on these findings, this thesis also provides methodological, theoretical, and pedagogical implications so that the TCM learners can gain better support in their specialized English vocabulary learning. They can also enable the teachers and course designers to better scaffold their students’ vocabulary development.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Applied Linguistics

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies


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